Eva Salzman’s Introduction to Women’s Work: Modern Poets Writing in English

 

EvaSalzman

WOMEN’S WORK: MODERN WOMEN POETS WRITING IN ENGLISH

Introduction by Eva Salzman to Women’s Work: Modern Women Poets Writing English, Eds Eva Salzman & Amy Wack

 

I

This anthology presents a panoramic selection of leading English-speaking modern poets, with an emphasis on bridging the US, UK and Ireland divides. You’ll find here a dazzling plurality of idiom, style and subject, well-established poets appearing with lesser known and newer voices deserving of a wider audience: the latest contemporary writers set in context against their heritage, to represent the full sweep of the modern period.

Given the space – and a more perfect world – these poets should appear alongside their male counterparts. That book is also overdue.[1] Given the space…well, usually there isn’t the space. All things being equal (which, mostly, things aren’t) editors largely agree that more men than women deserve more pages in mainstream anthologies purporting to reflect the canon; the “indispensable” list is still comprised predominantly of “men poets”. (Stephen Pain recommends the universal adoption of this phrase: “’man poet’ Ted Hughes, poet Sylvia Plath[2], ‘man poet’ Dylan Thomas, etc.” Imagine the Times Literary Supplement review of the “man-poet Seamus Heaney”! The long-awaited publication of Men Poets of the 20th Century!)

How to address a problem not seen as such? In the UK, any glaring gender imbalance is typically explained away as a “coincidence” here, an “accident” there. In that case, one should send for the doctors. If the selection criteria are indeed gender-blind, based on quality alone, this implied opinion of women’s writing is an offence demanding a response.

Many women poets disagree with the separatist ideology to which anthologies like this are assumed to subscribe. Some distance themselves from what Germaine Greer calls “the spirit that produced anthologies such as Diane Scott’s Bread and Roses and Louise Bernikow’s The World Split Open…” and “the reinvention of poetry as a propaganda tool of the women’s movement [that] must have galled independent women poets who had been toiling away for most of a lifetime, only to see their small market overwhelmed by a froth of publishing on the part of literature co-operatives and writers’ workshops.”[3] Irritatingly, anthologies sometimes do perpetuate the very stereotypes about women’s subjects we aim to disarm in this volume.[4] An anthology compiled to prove a point would be top-heavy with its own agenda. Nevertheless, my own internal, and heated, debate on this subject – and some poets’ ambivalent feelings about women’s anthologies – impelled me to address not only what is a routine gender bias, but also our problematical relationship with efforts to redress it. Hence, this polemic before the poetic. Hence the launching of this spectacular wealth of talent with a modulated celebratory note. Aren’t women’s anthologies self-defeating – “own-goals” – as they say? Doesn’t positive discrimination undermine a work’s legitimacy? True or not, the merest hint that the critical bar has been lowered justifies the status quo: which, of course, is itself based on a tacit positive discrimination.

Furthermore, gender-segregated anthologies conveniently absolve the “unconverted” from the need to consider the existence of bias. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t. It’s a conveniently insoluble problem. I too say “no thanks” to a separate, girly sand-box to play in, thank you for the gift of this condescension. The writing is all that should count. To which I’m tempted to reply to myself, and everyone: in your dreams.

In trying to shape a canon, anthology editors need to believe in their own vision and independence of thought, resistant to prevailing currents. In a review reprinted in his collection of essays Poetry and the Age (required reading), the poet/critic Randall Jarrell, in one of his reviews in his blunts such ambitions with a characteristic wit:

The typical anthologist is a sort of Gallup Poll with connections – often astonishing ones; it is hard to know whether he is printing a poem because he likes it, because his acquaintances tell him he ought to, or because he went to high school with the poet. But…he stares over his herds of poets like a patriarch, nodding or pointing with a large industrial air.[5]

Lacking the right body parts for the patriarch, I’ll point to the mostly patriarchal Great Poets of the 20th Century, a series of pamphlets published in spring 2008 by the Guardian newspaper in collaboration with Faber. These poets were deemed to be: Siegfried Sassoon, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Sylvia Plath, Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. In Britain at least, it is a truth universally acknowledged that Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop are the only women poets worthy of admission to the pantheon. Such unanimity of thought in an otherwise divisive world is notable.

Gender issues aside, there’s a strong case for replacing at least two writers on this list, chosen for reasons other than the writing. Surely, Sassoon is included to tick the box marked “war poet”? He cannot be a plausible choice outside of this category. Regardless, this box is more acceptable than the one marked “woman poet”, which pertains to the so-called “special interest” group comprising over half this planet’s population.  Despite lip service to the contrary, criteria other than the writing are always applied, if selectively.

It seems hubris – or a calculated marketing strategy – to define such a small and select part of the canon while some of its authors live; if you dare to, surely knowledge and breadth of vision are prerequisites for the job. Identical and infallible good taste about Plath and Bishop aside, one wonders how many are simply not familiar enough with major women poets’ work to make an informed assessment of the hierarchy. Who really knows the work of Louise Gluck, Denise Levertov, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Kay Ryan, Lorine Neidecker, Adrienne Rich, May Swenson, to name but a few (mostly) Americans? None of these are published by Faber, the Guardian’s partner for the series, but the lack of women on that list is further evidence of the problem.

Broaching this subject brings a plague on your house. Several online discussions which did just this (including responses to a Guardian blog I wrote which forms the basis for this essay) elicited from contributors passionate views about the male-dominated literary world. Equally passionate, and telling, was the vitriol unleashed in response to these comments. It would be disingenuous to say I found it astonishing. Personal attacks, like rockets, whistled through the ether; launched under cover, the anonymous writers aired their true opinions under an adopted – and often revealing – moniker.  (There’s a dissertation to be done on the persona as online literary device!) The issue was instantly hijacked into one about plausibility: women’s experiences and their commentary on it dismissed as irrelevant, and in this way invalidated in one fell swoop. Statistics, demanded as proof superior to women’s own experiences, were duly supplied. After more huffing and puffing, a nullifying silence fell, which further illustrated points of the argument. Here are some of these figures, mostly from volumes published in the enlightened post-1960’s:

Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse ed. Kenneth Allott – 5 women/90 men; New Penguin Book of English Verse ed. Paul Keegan – 16 women/81 men; British Poetry Since 1945 ed. Edward Lucie-Smith – 7 women/90 men;  Oxford Book of Contemporary Verse ed. D.J. Enright – 3 women/37 men; 101 Sonnets ed. Don Paterson – 13 women/87 men (this book seemingly culled from Phillis Levin’s superb Penguin Book of the Sonnet[6]); The New Poetry ed. Al Alvarez – 2 women/26 men; Poetry 1900-1965 ed. George Macbeth – 2 women/21 men; New York Poets ed. Mark Ford – no women; New York Poets II eds. Mark Ford & Trevor Winkfield – 2 women/9 men; The Forward Anthology of Poetry for the years 1993-2006 consistently features many more men than women; critical books are similarly lop-sided. I could bore us all to kingdom come.

The anthologies The Firebox ed. Sean O’Brien (34 women/91 men), Emergency Kit eds. Jo Shapcott & Matthew Sweeney (41 women/116 men) and The Anthology of 20th c. British and Irish Poetry ed. Keith Tuma (31 women/87 men), with the fairer acknowledgements these figures imply, nevertheless hit the proverbial glass ceiling, with women poets comprising roughly 1/3 of the total, occasionally a smidgeon more; turning hopefully to Andrew Duncan’s Poetry Review article on this last volume, we find that his 30 regretted omissions – poets from the 1950’s-1990’s – include not a single woman. The anthologies Last Words eds. Don Paterson & Jo Shapcott (33 women/55 men) and The New Poetry eds. David Kennedy, David Morley & Michael Hulse (17 women/38 men) all have a “healthier” balance; Bloodaxe, the publisher of this latter, boasts a consistently better record when it comes to publishing women.  Carol Ann Duffy’s Hand in Hand and Adrienne Rich’s The Best American Poetry 1996 are the only two anthologies I could find comprising more women than men. Here, it’s worth quoting extensively from Germaine Greer vis a vis the so-called “arbitrary” nature of coincidences:

It is not easy to imagine a male poet objecting to appearing in an anthology of men’s poems, as most anthologies have been, though the fact is not highlighted in their titles. The Amis Anthology, to cite the most doggedly laddish, does not separate work by gender, but women would have been better served if it had; out of 242 poems, eight are by women. One, by Elizabeth Jennings, is included because Amis published it when he was at Oxford in 1949; another, by Felicia Hemans, because his class translated it into Latin hexameters when he was at school; one by Christina Rossetti is accompanied by a sneer, and another by the unknown Teresa Dooley is used to caricature all poetesses. Laura Riding was doubtless happy to be one of the select company of nine women poets represented in The Rattle-Bag, compiled by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes in 1982.[7]

She has more to say about the criteria for inclusion:

…the blokes like the girls best when they write like the blokes, and extra-specially when they write about girls the way the blokes do. It suits the male poet to believe that neither sex is specifically intended because it encourages him in his view that his specificity is actually universality. The woman poet who knowingly plays this game is not so much a ventriloquist as a ventriloquist’s dummy.[8]

A snapshot of American anthologies shows us that The Best American Poetry anthologies (both 1989 & 2005), The Best of the Best American Poetry: 1988-1997, the Oxford Book of American Poetry eds. David Lehman (published in the UK but with an American editor) and the Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry, ed. J.D. McClatchy, adhering to our glass ceiling model, have somewhat better figures than the following: British and Irish Poetry Since 1970 eds. Richard Caddel & Peter Quartermain – 10 women/45 men;; The New Naked Poetry eds. Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey – 3 women/23 men;  New Lines anthologies ed. Robert Conquest 1956 – 1 woman/8 men,  and  1963 – 1 woman/23 men.[9] The figures above for women editors speak for themselves.[10]

Naturally, these anthologies reflect their editors’ taste within the confines of what’s available from publishers in the first place. These figures are themselves at odds with those from the 1960’s onwards which show increasing numbers of women winning Gregory awards, this acknowledgement commonly regarded as a reliable and leading indicator of new talent. Women are two-thirds of the poetry-buying public and a majority of workshop attendees. I hadn’t expected such appalling figures, but shouldn’t be so shocked at others’ lack of outrage.

Let’s not get “hysterical”, though. Let’s be “reasonable”, yes? Edna Longley, in choosing 10 women/49 men to represent The Bloodaxe Book of 20th Century Poetry, just prefers these poets who. A talented writer herself, surely Dorothy Wordsworth was a reliable critic in being so scathing about women’s poetry. In her book Gendering Poetry, Vicki Bertram notes how both Kathleen Raine and Laura Riding “had very firm views about the innate inferiority of female poets” (On cue come revelations about Riding’s unacknowledged contributions to writing by her then partner, Robert Graves: a familiar tale.) So women also judge women on gender rather than merit.[11]

Our Modern Greats had hardly left the newsstands when, predictably, the Guardian commissioned a woman to justify their series’ equally predictable lack of women: a well-worn, pre-emptive tactic employed by those defending a canon still being shorn of female talent.  Also on cue, Erica Jong writes: “Women columnists still make their fortunes by attacking other women, as in the age of Clare Boothe Luce. It is, in fact, a time-honoured way to get a book contract or a political appointment. Trashing one’s own gender remains a path to advancement.” [12]

In her essay “The Antifeminist Woman”[13] the poet and feminist Adrienne Rich says that until the late 50’s she’d tried not to identify herself as a female poet. She analyses the strong pressures which pit “woman against woman, woman against herself”. Flattery and blandishments convince the chosen woman poet she is special. Separated from the herd of ordinary female poets, she is accorded the status of honorary man, and therefore a more trustworthy critic, although she’s exempt only within the terms of a system underwritten by masculine primacy:

The token woman may come to believe that her personal solution has not been bought, but awarded her as a prize for her special qualities. And she may – indeed, must – have special qualities. But her personal solution has been bought at a political price; her ’liberation’ becomes another small confirmation of the patriarchal order and its principle of division.[14]

Such “fragmentation” is part of a sophisticated disposal system, crucial debate consigned to the “women’s pages” ghetto or women’s anthologies, where indignation is safely stashed, available to the already-converted and otherwise largely ignored. Such labels can often seem “own-goals”; men rarely participate in such “special interest” forums, except in reactionary guise.

It goes without saying that our special poet is not a “poetess”, which demeaning term does not simply connote a female practitioner as some claim.  In Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America, the poet and critic Alicia Ostriker states: “All of us know, or think we know, what a poetess is, and, to paraphrase Marianne Moore, we too dislike her”. Meanwhile, back at the corral, in an essay on Sylvia Plath, James Fenton is developing his theories:

When Elizabeth Bishop and her college friends sat doubled up with laughter at Edna St. Vincent Millay’s reading, with Millay wearing her long robe and clutching a curtain, what the girls were laughing at was a poetess, a woman imagining that a poetess must be something like a priestess.” [15]

Regardless of this (to us) comic and ludicrous picture[16], Fenton’s conclusions are enlightening: “Women becoming priests – the Pagan-sounding Priestess – upsets the symbolism”.[17] Such views accord with women’s assigned role as defender of morality within “a Judaeo-Christian world view where a woman’s value was above rubies and yet below that of men”,  as Sally Feldman describes it.[18] She goes on to quote the Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali’s admiration for the historian Callum Brown who “’notes particularly the part played by women in upholding piety and in passing on the faith in the home. It was the loss of this faith and piety among women which caused the steep decline in Christian observance in all sections of society”.[19] What a heavy burden this is: to make a woman responsible for perceived failings in a hierarchy she’s powerless to redefine or question.[20]

The baggage attached to “woman poet” – poetess or not – is more like a lead weight. Poet and critic Stanley Kunitz, in a review of Louise Bogan’s Land of Dust and Flame quotes with dismay Allen Tate’s reference to her as “the most accomplished woman poet of our time”, and wonders if “to be perennially classified and reviewed as a ‘woman poet’, must prove discomfiting, at least to a poet…of superlative gifts and power”,[21] and to anyone else, it’s tempting to add. With the perception others sorely lack, Kunitz disparages Stephen Spender’s generalisation that: “when men write poetry they have their eyes fixed on several things at once, such as the form and effect of the poem, whereas women lose themselves in the subject-matter, the experience….and are careless of words themselves and rhythmic pattern”.[22]  Spender clearly hadn’t read Plath, nor many others, one is bound to say. And I’d thought that women were meant to be the ultimate multi-taskers! But such clichés are always a moveable feast (sic).

James Fenton is “loathe to betray the spirit of Moore and Bishop by calling them women poets”[23], which term is commonly understood to be one of belittlement. It’s hard to know how to take his comment that we can’t know if Marianne Moore “achieved what she did only at the cost of the suppression of what might be taken as womanly”,[24] which presumably would otherwise hinder her greatness. Sylvia Plath, doubtless fairer game than Moore or Bishop, is damned with faint praise (or praised with faint damning, I’m not sure which): “…I was looking out for that particular tone of voice, the tone she acquires when she is not yelling (and most of the time she is not yelling)”:[25] which final clause certainly begs the question of why he mentions “yelling” at all.[26]

Fenton utterly takes it for granted that women poets are subject to the conflicts between marriage and writing or career, which conflicts needn’t pertain to men. Perhaps it’s unfair (and naïve) to expect him to factor in or challenge this disparity or to ponder its consequences. Least of all would it occur to him to speculate how, from his male perspective such matters influence his own assessments of Plath’s “conventional attitudes and shallow ambitions on the one hand, and (that) other self with its burning mysterious purpose”[27], thereby describing – but not objecting to – the necessary division of self and vocation not required of men.[28]  Viewing with distaste Plath’s unguarded elation at being the first woman poet Al Alvarez has taken seriously since Emily Dickinson, Fenton seizes the opportunity to express a predictable disparagement of female ambition. Plath’s response to having nabbed one of the few seats at high-table reserved for women, while unseemly and gloating, is perhaps also understandable under such a weight of prejudice.

He later acknowledges with wonderful (dis-?)ingenuousness: “The invention of the woman poet as evil or threatening archetype, witch, harridan….was not Sylvia Plath’s single-handed achievement”[29]. To which I reply: quite. Indeed, one recognises in her writing precisely the audacity and rage of the powerful yet impotent woman and poet.[30] In fact, by missing the point – by not listening – Fenton provides clues to this very aspect of her work.[31]

….

The terms paying Plath’s admission through the hallowed gates of the Guardian series are striking – and handed-down, one suspects.  Both Margaret Drabble, the author of the Plath booklet, and Nicholas Wroe in his Guardian review of the series, emphasised Plath’s importance apart from her “suicide” poems… by invoking the cliché of redemptive motherhood: “the vivid colours of giving birth, the pleasures of breast-feeding and the power and mystery of the maternal bond. Phew! It’s a good thing she had kids. Otherwise what could be said about the work?! A contemporary of Plath’s – which qualifies her in the pamphlet’s words to be its author – Drabble describes her “appalling” and “exhilarating” poetry from the “heart” rather than the head, thus minimising any formal dexterity and finesse (which needn’t preclude the heart).[32] Apparently, it’s radical to attribute her fame to the usual criteria: an exceptional feel for language, outstanding technical skills, a powerful vision and mastery of form.  Apparently, it’s naïve to want ability and talent to be the king-makers’ (sic) main criteria when it comes to women poets.

Double standards like this are rife, strengths turned to weaknesses undermining a poet’s stature. Plath is often misleadingly summed up and disparaged as a “confessional” poet; the term applied Robert Lowell is never so negative. As we have seen from Fenton’s remarks, the critical writing about Plath typically eclipses the work itself by emphasising her fame as contingent on the sensationalist biographical events of her life and death, which issues are largely secondary in the writing about her husband, Ted Hughes.  Sadly, and repeatedly, this lack of critical engagement is characteristic of how most women poets are viewed – or are not viewed – as is more the case.

Alicia Ostriker examines how the critical lexicon varies to suit gender: “We seldom encounter, in praise of woman poets, terms like “great, powerful, forceful….large or true…” Instead, she continues, “complimentary adjectives of choice…shift toward the diminutives: graceful, subtle, elegant, delicate, cryptic and, above all, modest.”[33] Repeatedly, women poets are admired for their retiring nature: “We know that Bishop was extremely cautious with the deployment of her private life and tenderest emotions in her poetry.”[34] Having devoted a great part of his review to poems he doesn’t like, Fenton does laud the “quiet, quizzical Plath”.[35] Even Kunitz uses words like “pretty” and “elegance” to describe Bogan;[36] his essay on Marianne Moore begins in the following fashion: “Miss Moore is unique, and she never argues. Like peace she is indivisible”.[37] According to W.H. Auden, Adrienne Rich’s early poems are “neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble…” (here, the phrase “eating of words” comes to mind).

Ostriker dryly remarks: “Male poets engage in quests; women poets run errands”.[38] The poetic material cited as proof of a male poet’s depth and substance will, on the other hand, substantiate a woman poet’s limited palette. Writing about partner or family, she is a “domestic” poet; meanwhile, he is absorbed in the timeless themes of love and passion. Grappling with life and death issues, men are dragon-slayers; women embarked on such odysseys are rarely granted similarly heroic status. Instead, they’re merely, victims, a considerably less noble assignation which also handily renders them more vulnerable to any criticism embedded with ulterior motives, and more susceptible to being undervalued and misunderstood, except in the context of their maternal role, or tragedy.

Rich’s refers to an “imaginative obsession with victimisation and death, unfair to Plath herself and her own struggle for survival”[39], which remark echoes my current preoccupation with a critical fetishization of the damaged woman, as artist especially. Fenton takes pot-shots at living poets he deems pale imitations of Plath, the very poet whose talent he’d failed to recognise in the first place, while she lived. (Perhaps he’ll be proven similarly wrong about more recent targets.)[40] Dead, Plath becomes the conveniently passive subject of speculation, handily absent from the arena where power politics are played out.[41] Dead, she is protected and enhanced by virtue of this ultimate vulnerability. The recent death of the talented young poet Sarah Hannah, to whom this book is dedicated, had me pondering the rescue of her work from these death-cult terms which routinely sidelines any critical analysis.[42]

Similarly, Emily Dickinson’s self-imposed Purdah is both a virtue and symptom of the madness assumed to underpin her creativity, her retiring nature and oddball spinster status like a sandwich board which the artful strategist and vocational writer is forced to carry. Says Ostriker: “What we may call the ‘accident’ theory of female creativity persists in, among others, David Porter, whose Dickinson: The Modern Idiom argues that Dickinson’s evasions of ‘reality’ inadvertently anticipate the radical gestures of postmodernism.”[43] Maybe, to him all avant-gardism is an accident. A collation of routine not-so-subliminal ‘forces’ working against the writing woman provides the premise for Joanna Russo’s book How to Suppress Women’s Writing which, to rephrase slightly from the book jacket, goes something like this: She didn’t write it. She wrote it, but she shouldn’t have. She wrote it, but she had help. She wrote it, but it isn’t art. She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly. She wrote it, but but but…”

Inevitably, an author’s work is itself influenced and even compromised by the critical terms employed to describe it. Adrienne Rich notes the overexposure “in the schoolroom to Emily Dickinson’s ‘little-girl poems’, her kittenish tones, as in “I’m Nobody, Who are you” (a poem whose underlying anger translates itself into archness)”[44], in contrast to poems more accurately attesting to that poet’s power and depth.[45]

Rich describes her earlier “absolutist” approach (“an arrangement of ideas and feelings, pre-determined, and it said what I had already decided it should say”). This thinking gave way to the realisation that she had “suppressed, omitted, falsified even, certain disturbing elements, to gain that perfection of order,” which indeed is an aim some actively applaud, quite regardless of its ultimate success as a profound work of art. Describing her later direction Rich says: “Perhaps a simple way of putting it would be to say that instead of poems about experiences, I am getting poems that are experiences, that contribute to my knowledge and my emotional life even while they reflect and assimilate it.”[46] It should go without saying that “women poets” – like “men poets” – make their aesthetic decisions based on the usual explorations and considerations that define the creative process.[47]

We could view in a wider context the dismal publishing figures and the tenor of critical writing about women. For example, the 2008 groundbreaking presidential nomination race in the US, by fielding a woman and a black candidate, flushed out an unpleasantly regressive zeitgeist…if one can call “regressive” something that’s never gone away. Websites boasting a merrily virulent misogyny proliferated.  The predictable racist comments rightly provoked universal and unqualified outrage; in contrast, analogous sexist comments merited mild disapproval or uncomfortable laughs. A New York Times article cites statistics showing that, consistently, people can overlook race more readily than gender, when it comes to candidates or jobs. Nevertheless, the media carried on giving the lion’s share of coverage to racism, as the major hurtle. The newly-minted platitude is: “Feminism is a dirty word”. In this context, we ponder a widespread ambivalence towards women’s anthologies; in this context, we ponder not only the anger at the blatant under- and mis-representation of women poets, but the anger at this anger.

Although a thin trickle of women’s voices – often the usual suspects – runs throughout mainstream anthologies, there’s little value in an honour bestowed by editors (mostly male) who are simply not familiar with enough women poets. This book, in introducing this part of the canon and re-writing the list of “essentials”, throws down the gauntlet to future critics and editors in the hope they can better represent the true breadth and vitality of the tradition.

In the movie Groundhog Day, a man is doomed to relive the same day repeatedly, until he can get it right. Then, Sonny and Cher will finally stop singing “I Got You Babe”, and everyone will rediscover Simone De Beauvoir’s classic book The Second Sex, published over fifty years ago. Describing how her 1968 hope has evaporated, Erica Jong calls feminism “nameless again”, but concludes: “Perhaps a new generation will discover it like the shard of an ancient cooking vessel. Perhaps someone will name it again. I’ll be there.”[48] Then we may not need women’s anthologies to get the accurate measure of women’s literary contributions, and won’t need to devote this valuable space to saying what is commonly understood to be unsayable. Many consider it passé – old hat – to bring up these subjects. What is more old hat is the societally sanctioned quashing of this important discussion. That both this book and its defence feel more necessary than ever suggests that some old hats should still be in vogue.

[1] Thus far, I’ve been unable to interest UK publishers in such a  book.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, poems by all poets mentioned in this Introduction appear in this anthology.

[3] “A Biodegradable Art”, Times Literary Supplement, June 30, 1995

[4] A few potential contributors to this book needed to be reassured that the writing was the only criteria for inclusion here, that this collection grew from an aesthetic not a political root.

[5] During less affluent times, Dana Gioia points out, people depended more on anthologies, frequently reprinted,  for their reading, whereas more recent ones, with a shorter shelf-life and more “clubby” feeling, seen  “compiled in the spirit of congenial opporunism”, such as “The 1985 Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets….[which] is not so much a selective literary collection as a comprehensive directory of creative-writing teachers (it even offers a photo of each author).”

[6] Levin’s own poems appear in this anthology. Unless otherwise noted in the Introduction, all the women poets cited here have poems in this anthology.

[7] “A Biodegradable Art”, Times Literary Supplement, June 30, 1995

[8] Ibid

[9] The figures in the recent Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, ed. P. Hoover  (27 women/76 men) have improved since the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (1973), eds. Richard Elman and Robert O’Clair (19 women/132 men). Generally,  the USA anthologies do seem more balanced.

[10] Space restricts further discussion of these crucially important figures; when Oxford University Press dropped its poetry list in one of the more shameful episodes in this country’s literary annals, England lost one of its only female poetry editors, Jacqueline Simms.

[11] Elizabeth Bishop, in befriending the poet May Swenson in letters, was also just a little condescending; she tried to make Swenson’s poems less vulgar and with less attention to the body, which sensibility may shed light on both Bishop’s wide acceptance and Swenson’s relative obscurity within the UK.

[12] “Don’t forget the F-word”, Guardian, April 12, 2008

[13] On Lies, Secrets and Silence

[14] Ibid

[15] “Lady Lazarus” The Strength of Poetry

 [16]Deryn Rees-Jones’s offers more contextual and rhetorically objective views about Edith Sitwell’s not dissimilar sartorial sense and theatricality in Consorting with Angels: Essays on Modern Women Poets; that book’s companion anthology, Modern Women Poets, focuses on poets in the UK and Ireland.

[17] Priestess is another diminutive. Perhaps his view has been helped along by Stephen Spender’s assessment of her as “a priestess cultivating her hysteria”. Contrast this  discomfort with Marjorie Perloff’ literary analysis: “hers is an ‘oracular poetry’ in the tradition of such later eighteenth-century poets as Smart, Cowper, Collins and Blake, the poets of what Northrop Frye has called ‘the Age of Sensibility’.” (“Angst and Animism in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath, Critical Essays on Plath, ed. Linda W. Wagner.

[18] “Gender Traitors”, New Humanist, July/August 2008

[19] Ibid

[20] Within the Judaic tradition – and others too I’d guess – women’s oppression is sometimes ennobled with the tag “Queen of the Household”, which phrase neatly denotes the limits of her realm.

[21] “Land of Dust and Flame”,  A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly

[22] Ibid

[23] “Lady Lazarus”, The Strength of Poetry

[24] Ibid

[25] Ibid

[26] Contrast this with  Linda W. Wagner’s comments about how Helen Vendler “deals with the issue of Plath’s confessional tendencies , pointing out that Plath is seldom out of control. Plath never rages.” – “Introduction”, Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath.

[27] Ibid

[28] Says Evan Boland: “I stumbled, almost without knowing it, into the life of a woman. I marrigd. I moved to a suburb. (“The Wrong Way”, Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry, eds. W.N. Herbert & Matthew Hollis). Here’s the 17-year-old Plath on seemingly inescapable appointment with destiny:” I am afraid of getting married. Spare me from cooking three meals a day – spare me from the relentless cage of routine and rote. I want to be free…” (“In Yeats’s House: The Death and Resurrection of Sylvia Plath”, Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath, ed. Linda  W. Wagner)

[29] Ibid

[30] Alicia Ostriker persuasively analyses Plath’s ‘bravado’: “That men do dread the avenging maenad Plath evokes….is unquestionable. At the same time, her incantation is hollow. She is impersonating a female Phoenix-fiend like a woman wearing a Halloween costume, or a child saying “I’ll kill you” to the grownups, or Lear bellowing ‘I will do such things -/What they are yet I know/not, but they shall be/The terrors of the earth.’ She is powerless, she knows it, she hates it. (“The Americanization of Sylvia”, Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath ed. Linda W. Wagner)

[31] A comment by Stevie Smith springs to mind, even her intent is different: “My Muse is like the painting of the Court Poet and His Muse in the national Gallery; she is also howling into an indifferent ear.”  – Me Again: Uncollected Writings, eds. Jack Barbera & William McBrien/Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry, eds W.N. Herbert  & Matthew Hollis

[32] One wonders if Drabble has read Plath’s comments on her own work weighing up her chosen techniques of expression in a way which gives the  measure of her skill and intent:  the hallmark of her skill, as when she remarks of her poem “Point Shirley”: “Oddly powerful and moving to me in spite of rigid formal structure”.  In William Pritchard’s  essay, “An Interesting Minor Poet”,  the title of which is taken from Irving Howe’s limited judgement of her work,  in order to dispute, Pritchard  going on to say: “”If we may correct Sylvia Plath, it moves us not in spire of but partly because of its “rigid formal structure”.  Ibid

[33] Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America

[34] James Fenton, “Lady Lazarus”, The Strength of Poetry

[35] Ibid

[36] “Land of Dust and Flame, A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly

[37] “Pangolin of Poets”, A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly

[38] Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America

[39] “Anne Sexton: 1928-1974”, On Lies, Secrets and Silence

[40] Her voice…was too strong, too strange, not to have struck a note of challenge, her life too brief and intense not to have been packaged as that of yet another doomed female genius.” – Katha Pollitt, “A Note of Trumph”, Critical Essays of Sylvia Plath, ed. Linda w. Wagner

[41] Fiona Sampson , editor of Poetry Review,  comments that “the often low standard of critical practice in combination with power-broking” afffects how women poets are perceived and treated. “  This power-politics works on every level, starting with simple matters of credit or attribution. I once sat in the audience listening to an editor proudly took credit for the discovery of a poet I’d recommended to him, and whom I had to persuade him to publish.

[42] For this, we must turn to  Linda W. Wagner’s Critical Essays on Sylvia  Plath. Anita Helle’s The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath or to Hannah’s own scholarly monogram ‘“Something Else Hauls Me Through Air”: Sound and Structure in Four Late Poems by Sylvia Plath’ , in which she meticulously analyses  how that poet’s apprenticeship to craft led to a “precise manipulation of syntax, rhyme and structure to enact complex themes….even the simple sentence can serve as a hypnotic and expressive device in a poem”: all of these published in America.

[43] Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America

[44] “Vesuvius at Home: the Power of Emily Dickinson, On Lies, Secrets and Silence

[45] Randell Jarrell , making thet same contrast, notes “arch and silly and  terrible poems”, by a writer he also  calls “one of the most individual writers who ever lived, one of those best able to express experience at its most absolute” . (“The Year in Poetry”, Harper’s October 1955/Kipling, Auden & Co)

[46] “Poetry and Experience: Statement at a Poetry Reading” Adrienne Rich’s Poetry: Texts of the poems, The Poet on her Work, Reviews & Criticism, ed. Barbara Charlesworth ,and here reprinted from Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry, eds W. N. Herbret & Matthew Hollis. In regard of these same points, and in this same volume  (20 women/57  men), see also Selima Hill’s description of her own creative process.

[47] For  further analyses of poets’ renunciation of form – more about usages –  see Vicki Bertram’s Gendering Poetry.

[48] “Don’t forget the F-word”, Guardian, April 12, 2008

 

Eva Salzman’s books include “Double Crossing: New & Selected Poems” (Bloodaxe) and “Bargain with the Watchman” (Oxford).
 
Her libretti and musical collaborations include those with English composer Gary Carpenter, Dublin-born singer Christine Tobin and her father Eric Salzman.
 
Associate Lecturer at Goldsmiths (University of London), Salzman has also taught at Emerson College in Boston. Brooklyn and Long Island raised, she is a dual citizen of the USA and UK, living part of the year in London.’

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Published by darcie friesen hossack

Darcie Friesen Hossack is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers. Her short story collection, Mennonites Don’t Dance, was a runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Award, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading Evergreen Award for Adult Fiction. Citing irreverence, the book was banned by the LaCrete Public Library in Northern Alberta. Having mentored with Giller finalists Sandra Birdsell (The Russlander) and Gail Anderson Dargatz (Spawning Grounds, The Cure for Death by Lightening), Darcie is now completing her first novel where, for a family with a Seventh-day Adventist father and a Mennonite mother, the End Times are just around the corner. Darcie is also a four time judge of the Whistler Independent Book Awards, and a career food writer. She lives in Northern Alberta, Canada, with her husband, international award-winning chef, Dean Hossack.

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